new Mennonite Life logo    December 2002     vol. 57 no. 4     Back to Table of Contents

Book Reviews

John Landis Ruth, The Earth Is the Lord's: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Scottdale, Herald Press, 2001. Pp. 1392. ($59.99). Studies in Anabaptists and Mennonite History, No. 39. ISBN: 0-8361-9154-4 Reviewed by David A. Haury.

Marlene Kropf and Kenneth Nafziger. Singing: A Mennonite Voice. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001. Pp. 192. ($14.99-paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9152-8; Kenneth Nafziger and Eastern Mennonite University Chamber Singers. Singing: Treasures from Mennonite Worship. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001. CD ($15.99) CD# 0-9172-9 Reviewed by William H. Eash.

Helmut Harder, David Toews Was Here 1870-1947. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 2002. Pp. 347. ISBN 0-920718-74-4; Esther Epp-Thiessen, J. J. Thiessen: A Leader for His Time. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 2001. Reviewed by James C. Juhnke.

Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians. Scottdale: Herald Press, 2002. (Believers Church Bible Commentary series) Pp. 400. ($24.99 -- paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9167-6 Reviewed by Willmar T. Harder.

John Landis Ruth, The Earth Is the Lord's: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Scottdale, Herald Press, 2001. Pp. 1392. ($59.99). Studies in Anabaptists and Mennonite History, No. 39. ISBN: 0-8361-9154-4

John Ruth's story of the Mennonites who first settled in what became Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1711, is not really a "conference" history although readers will learn a great deal about the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. The focus is on people, not institutions. The requisite institutions common to most Mennonite conferences, such as schools, missions, retirement homes, orphanages, and so forth, are described. Most arrived somewhat late on the scene in the twentieth century. However, Ruth could not have successfully woven his narrative around the creation of these institutions. Even the semi-annual conference of ordained men which appears to have evolved from more irregular councils in the mid-eighteenth century into a body which met regularly for discernment and decision-making is tangential to the history of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Occasionally as controversies arose, the role or judgment of this conference reached center stage, but Ruth's story is about a network of congregations and even more about an extended family of people. How did this family persist and grow while yielding to Christ's will? He develops this central theme over a span of nearly four centuries with incredible insight and detail.

Persecution of the Anabaptists in Switzerland continued into the seventeenth century and at times escalated with harsh penalties of imprisonment, confiscation, exile, and even death. Some escaped for a time by moving north to the Palatinate. However, as the persecution worsened at the end of the first decade of the eighteenth century, Bernese Anabaptists chose migration to America. Seven families settled about seventy miles south of Philadelphia at the head of the Pequea river in the Conestoga watershed in spring 1711, and six years later ten fold as many families followed them to perhaps the most fertile agricultural land in the new world. The community prospered and more Anabaptists arrived from Europe. Ruth traces the name they used to describe themselves from "Brüder" or "Täufer" and then "Mennist" in Europe to "Mennonist" and eventually "Mennonite" in America.

It is impossible to summarize even the major themes in the history of the Lancaster Conference in a few short pages. One approach is to look at the previous gaps in this history which have been filled in by this volume. Perhaps first and foremost is the extensive European background provided. Interest in where they came from has been a mid to late twentieth century phenomenon for the Lancaster family, and Ruth - with very sparse written records and few oral traditions - fills the void well. The situation with respect to the early years in America is similar, and again the depth of research presented is remarkable. A second and related emphasis of this volume is on listening to and telling all stories, especially those of women, which were almost completely absent from previous works about the conference. A third theme, which forms the foundation for understanding this community, is the significance of the land on which they lived and how it shaped virtually everything, including even their world view and spirituality. Their relationship with the land is described with great insight. Another theme, also largely missing from the previous record of events, is a focus on the local native Americans who were their predecessors on this land and for much of the eighteenth century neighbors of the Mennonites.

John Ruth writes as a storyteller, minister, and English professor, not a professional historian, and thus this is not a traditional narrative history. It is a compilation of stories, woven together largely in chronological order, with minimal commentary or analysis. Frequent bold headings clearly identify the stories or groupings of stories. The reader will not often find a generic description of a church service, funeral, wedding, harvest, diet, farmstead or other types of practices or activities. Instead first hand accounts are told, and often lines from poems, hymns, or other documents are quoted.

In some respects this format narrows the audience to the Lancaster community itself. The details and stories will be more meaningful to descendants, even those separated by generations from Lancaster County, and those from other Mennonite groups or without much background in Mennonite history may occasionally get lost. Fortunately, a series of excellent maps and illustrations provide some grounding so at least the geography is not completely confusing. Likewise some congregations have been known by various names and are more likely than congregations in the western states to have family names (Eshelman, Erb, Gerber, Gingrich, Mellinger, etc.) than place names. Some family names are extremely common in the Lancaster family, such as Landis, which fills over two columns in the index, with one column having the first name of John. One learns a great deal about who is related to or descended from whom.

Some themes recur throughout the three centuries of the Lancaster Conference in America. One of the foremost is nonresistance. This volume traces the challenges of the military to the Mennonite community from Switzerland and the Palatinate to various conflicts in America: French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War. Other factors over the years threatened their nonconformity or separation. Some of the larger issues over time were the transition from the German to English language and innovations in religious practices, such as Sunday schools and pulpits. One of the most interesting stories is of a newly installed pulpit which was torn out of a meetinghouse in the dead of night and the controversy which followed. Some of the issues were over whether to adopt developments in the greater American society, such as insurance, higher education, or television. However, the most significant rule of distinction was plain dress, and the twentieth century saw this emerge as a major line of separation and a constant source of discussion over rules and discipline. At times disagreements over separation created splits, such as that which resulted in the Old Order Mennonites.

Nevertheless, most of the issues which resulted in individuals leaving the Lancaster Conference did not relate to separation or plain dress but to evangelism or in a broader sense spirituality. Even in the early years many Mennonites became attracted to the more emotional faith and worship of other groups, including Dunkers, Brethren in Christ, United Brethren, and others. If all descendants of the Lancaster family had remained Mennonites, the author estimates the conference would have had 250,000 not 25,000 adults and children in the mid twentieth century. Perhaps the most insightful analysis of the volume is looking at the development of the faith of the Lancaster community while faced with a myriad of pressures from the outside world. Temptation for change came both from within and without, and movement often occurred - both from Lancaster Conference to more liberal Mennonite groups or evangelical groups and from Old Order Mennonite or Amish groups into the Lancaster Conference.

While the more emotional or evangelical style of other groups may have challenged the Lancaster Mennonite Conference on occasion, perhaps the most remarkable development of the past century has been the growth of home and foreign mission work by the conference. The evolution of the Home Mission Advocates in 1894 into the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in 1914 is a fascinating story. The work of the conference in missions could be the subject of several books, and this volume provides a good overview of the numerous fields and the challenges faced in each and of the service of hundreds of dedicated mission workers.

Change appears to have accelerated within the Lancaster Conference during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Wearing plain dress has fallen off considerably. Young people have begun to attend college. In addition to the two meetings of ordained leaders each year, an annual meeting of congregational delegates is held. In 1971 the Lancaster Mennonite Conference joined the Assembly of the Mennonite Church (though, the author adds, without much enthusiasm for it). Today it is important for those in the newly created Mennonite Church USA to read the stories in these pages and understand how the Lancaster Conference got to where it is today and how it fits into the complicated mosaic of North American Mennonitism. For those within or related to the Lancaster community, this volume recovers and tells your story in a dramatic and detailed fashion unmatched by any other conference history book.

David A. Haury
Topeka, Kansas

Marlene Kropf and Kenneth Nafziger. Singing: A Mennonite Voice. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001. Pp. 192. ($14.99-paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9152-8;

Kenneth Nafziger and Eastern Mennonite University Chamber Singers. Singing: Treasures from Mennonite Worship. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001. CD ($15.99) CD# 0-9172-9

The sounds of the Eastern Mennonite Choir singing arrangements from Hymnal: A Worship Book permeate the space as I sit to write this review for Singing: A Mennonite Voice. The mellifluous voices of the choir support the words of John Bell in his foreword to the book. He encourages us to "read at a leisurely pace the testimonies of God's everyday saints as they reflect on the relationship between their lives and the life of God as it is mediated, explored and affirmed in song."

Throughout the book, the authors use selected testimonies of Mennonites and non-Mennonites and their responses to congregational singing. The authors, Marlene Kropf, professor at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Ken Nafziger, professor of music at Eastern Mennonite University, draw on one hundred personal interviews conducted in 1994-1995 in the United States and Canada. After compiling this oral material, they organize these interviews in three chapters: the sound and sense of Mennonite singing, what happens when we sing, and toward a spirituality of song. The fourth chapter is reserved for a description of the evolution of singing since the publication of Hymnal: A Worship Book. The epilogue becomes a personal statement of philosophy that would be helpful for any musician learning to lead congregational singing.

The strength of this book lies in the premise that hymns generate stories, stories that are personal and often divine. These stories are private, rarely shared with other members of the congregation or worshiping community. The publication of the book indicates that the task of conveying these memories is an integral part of reconnecting with our heritage of congregational singing. The authors begin this important storytelling process in a vibrant and engaging way.

Singing: A Mennonite Voice suggests additional topics that could be explored. For example, is there a way we can illuminate the shadow parts of our singing, encouraging those people in our congregations to articulate why they don't sing? Could we come to a better understanding of who we are by engaging the ones in our midst who choose not to participate? Could we begin to listen more attentively to those individuals who may not actively engage all of the new styles? A broader study might provide intriguing insight into the ongoing evolution of our congregational singing. Perhaps having told some of the story, now is the time for someone to do detailed research in why we sing, what constitutes our favorite hymns. We could perhaps more accurately describe our geographical differences and our similarities. Careful research could open up dialogue of what we should learn that would broaden our world perspective.

The anecdotal material appears to be gathered from individuals located on the East Coast, in northern Indiana or on the West Coast. The communities in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas do not appear to be represented. Would the stories from these congregations be different as a result of migration patterns or use of instruments in the worship service? Since the interviews date from 1994 and 1995, would the content of the interviews have changed as a result of our evolving patterns in congregational singing?

The accompanying CD is a supplement to the book. Crafted by Ken Nafziger and the Eastern Mennonite University Chamber Singers, it is a valuable addition to the Hymnal Masterworks series that many of us have grown to appreciate. The singing is accurate, the arrangements are attractive and the musicians are engaged with the music. Persons interested in hymns and hymn singing will want to purchase this CD as an educational tool as well as a vehicle for contemplation.

These authors have created a fine contribution to the life of worshiping congregations. They have begun the process of creating oral faith histories of the hymns we sing. This process should be invaluable for the entire church. Worshiping communities should begin to see the value of vibrant, vigorous hymn singing that refocuses the mind and revitalizes the heart. This limitless resource is present in all of us and is called forth by the vital worshiping congregations among us. For those among us deeply interested in congregational singing: read this book in segments, with a cup of coffee in hand, using it to recall your memories of favorite hymns and reflecting on your personal experience with hymn singing.

William H. Eash
Professor of Music
Bethel College

Helmut Harder, David Toews Was Here 1870-1947. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 2002. Pp. 347. ISBN 0-920718-74-4

Esther Epp-Thiessen, J. J. Thiessen: A Leader for His Time. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 2001.

The master narrative of Canadian Mennonite history has been dominated by the great waves of migration from Russia to Canada in the 1870s, the 1920s, and the 1940s. It is a history of challenge and response, of suffering and survival. The experience of overcoming great obstacles produced strong leaders, two of whom were David Toews (1870-1947), the "Mennonite Moses" of the 1920s migration, and Jacob Johann Thiessen (1893-1977), Toews' successor as head of the Board of Colonization. Both Toews and Thiessen were powerful patriarchs who helped establish new church denominational institutions for a migrant people in the Canadian environment.

These two biographies chronicle a time of moral earnestness. Although J. J. Thiessen smiles somewhat impishly on the cover photo of his biography, his sterner preaching image with forefinger raised in admonition (p. 251) seems to capture more closely the broader life-spirit and tone of both men. Toews and Thiessen did not have time or inclination for frivolity. Epp-Thiessen writes that J. J. Thiessen's life "lacked the balance that would be considered important today." (132) These leaders discerned God's will and worked hard to achieve it.

In our twenty-first century era of increasing separation and distancing of Mennonites in Canada and the United States, the multi-lingual and multi-national character of these men seems impressive. They both spoke high German, low German, and English. They both had been at home in Russia and in North America. David Toews' experience in crossing boundaries was especially interesting. He was a young lad when his parents took the family on the ill-fated "Great Trek" to Central Asia, led by Klaas Epp. The family then migrated to Kansas, where David attended the Mennonite institute at Halstead. After his great life work of organizing the migration of Russian Mennonites to Canada, Toews received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Bethel College in Kansas.

The drama of difficult decisions to emigrate from Russia forms some of the most interesting chapters of these biographies. Harder gains imaginative access to the Toews' family experience on the Great Trek to Central Asia by quoting from the fictional account by Dallas Wiebe, Our Asian Journey. Epp-Thiessen effectively describes the harrowing attack by Nestor Makhno's forces on the village of Tiegenhagen, and the narrow escape from rape and death by Tina Thiessen and her husband. Thiessen's ability to overcome his guilt for having survived when so many others died, and to develop a theology of suffering, was important for his preparation as a leader of his people.

Authors Helmut Harder and Esther Epp-Thiessen both write in direct straight-forward prose, not keyed to irony or paradox. They both have a fine balance of praise and criticism of their subjects. While they celebrate two great lives, they also celebrate community and peoplehood. Epp-Thiessen is especially sensitive to the limitations placed on women in Mennonite communities. She tells us that J. J. Thiessen could aspire to higher education but "his sisters could not." (20) When J. J. decided to move his family from Waterloo, Ontario, to Rosthern, Saskatchewan, his wife Tina was eight months pregnant, yet "her personal wishes may not have entered the picture at all." (92) Later Tina suffered a total physical collapse and illness with breast cancer, and Epp-Thiessen reports, "If there had not been such social silence about the female body, the Thiessen family would likely have received more practical and emotional support at this time of crisis." (108-9)

These biographies remind us of an era of early denominational development when church leaders held onto positions of power for long decades into old age. Helmut Harder notes that the average age of the nine people who in 1902 attended the first meeting that led to the founding of the Conference of Mennonites in Central Canada was about thirty-eight. David Toews was thirty-two at the time. Not until four decades later, in his seventies and in declining health, did Toews relinquish his offices of authority. J. J. Thiessen also was in his seventies when he stepped down from his positions as church elder, as chairman of the board of Canadian Mennonite Bible College, and as member of the Mennonite Central Committee executive committee. Harder and Epp-Thiessen are quite generous in their assessment of leaders who hold onto power.

Both of these biographies contain a great deal of information about the people, places, and events in the lives of their subjects. Unfortunately, neither of the books has an index, and the information is far less accessible than it should be for readers and researchers. An errata sheet in the biography of David Toews informs us that Maria Wiebe Toews, David's mother, is mistakenly identified as "Anna" in every reference throughout the book. Such an embarrassing error, and the absence of indexes, suggest that the editors should have taken more time to complete these excellent biographies with the distinction they deserve.

James C. Juhnke
North Newton, Kansas

Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians. Scottdale: Herald Press, 2002. (Believers Church Bible Commentary series) Pp. 400. ($24.99 -- paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9167-6

As the chaotic forces of violence seem to have a stranglehold on current events, it is truly "good news" to read Ephesians as a call to active peacemaking and servanthood. Thomas Yoder Neufeld, in the latest addition to the Believers Church Bible Commentary series, provides a passionate exegesis of Ephesians that sensitively balances the need for scholastic rigor and lay person accessability. Furthermore, Yoder Neufeld uses voices from a wide spectrum of biblical and theological thought to provide a distinct "Believers Church" interpretation. Several key Believers Church distinctives explicitly provide direction for the commentary. They include: the Bible is a call to peace and servanthood, the Christian life is fully realized within voluntary community, and heaven is to be lived on earth (an ethic of "already but not yet"). While these hermeneutics drive the bulk of his interpretation, he is quick to warn the reader that "the core commitment of the Believers Church tradition to listening to the Bible as the word of God must take precedence over maintaining its traditional interpretations" (29). Yoder Neufeld may trouble readers who are uncomfortable with forms of ecumenicism and/or calls for active social engagement, however he provides a sturdy and much needed Anabaptist interpretation.

This commentary follows the same format as others in the series. Yoder Neufeld begins with a helpful introduction that describes his assumptions, intentions and methodology in writing the book. He also provides several observations that address issues of authorship, date of writing and historical context--the most lengthy being a discussion concerning the possibilities of Pauline authorship. A systematic discussion of Ephesians follows the introduction and it divides the letter into twelve distinct sections. Each section is categorically discussed in the following order: 1) Preview; 2) Outline; 3) Explanatory Notes; 4) The Text in Biblical Context; and 5) The Text in the Life of the Church. While at times the discussion may get dense for readers without formal training in biblical studies, Yoder Neufeld effectively communicates through a helpful mixture of academic discussion, references to visual art, music, and nonacademic literature. For example, in emphasizing the worshipful nature of Ephesians, he tactfully includes references from present day worship resources like the Hymnal: A Worship Book to show contemporary relevance. Especially helpful in each section is the discussion of a given theme by focusing on how it relates to the rest of the Bible, and how we can apply it in the life of the Church. The book ends with outlines of the letter, topical essays, illustrations, maps, and a bibliography that supplement the systematic verse-by-verse commentary.

With deep conviction that worship and work cannot be dissected, Yoder Neufeld expertly tackles the text and provides theologically palatable and convincing commentary for even the most difficult and perplexing passages. His discussions of three difficult texts are especially helpful. First, commentators face a difficult challenge in interpreting Ephesians 2:15a. What does it mean that Christ has "abolished (katargeo)" the "law of commandments"? Unfortunately, many times this verse has been used to support hostility toward Jewish tradition and has promoted an intense "law vs. grace" debate. Yoder Neufeld points out that instead of referring to the law as a whole, this passage refers to "the law of commandments in dogmas" (116), which in turn points to a more limited meaning. He provides several "overlapping" possibilities of interpretation-- "Abolishing the law as means of: a) separation; b) condemnation; and c) an effect of eschatology" (116-119). The author concludes that while these possibilities critique certain applications (the dogmas) of the law, none are explicitly hostile to Jewish tradition itself, let alone the law.

Second, the so called "Household Code" has long spurred contentious debate in the Church's struggle for faithful gender relationship in home and society. Yoder Neufeld provides a compelling commentary by not glossing over patriarchal contextual realities, while also exegeting a radical call to submission. He frames his discussion within the observation that, "this text is hardly adequate by itself to provide a vision for the place and role of wives in a marriage relationship" (285). In essence, he asserts that the letter was written as an appeal to those who were socially dominant in the Ephesian context--an appeal to pattern their behavior after the example of Christ's servant leadership. Relevant to modern readers in more equal relationships, the call to imitate Christ is for "anyone who exercises responsibility, freedom and authority in a relationship--husband and wife, father and mother" (286). Imitation of Christ mimics a cosmic Lord whose headship comes to "fullest expression in the liberation of the other, in the empowerment of the other, and in loving and self-denying servanthood for the sake of the other" (287). Yoder Neufeld concludes that the Household Code is primarily directed to already-dominant partners and carries more a "germ" of social change and less a legitimation for prevailing social structures. The discussion ends with poignant questions directed to those in power and a hymn that profoundly prays for humility.

Third, Ephesians 6:10-20 provides a climactic call to cosmic arms that often has nonviolent Anabaptists squirming uncomfortably. This passage, with its imagery of war and battle, finds Yoder Neufeld in his academic powerhouse (his doctoral dissertation focused on biblical warrior images). In a time when military violence is a reality, Yoder Neufeld provides a convincing argument that the text is a metaphoric summons for using the armor of God to wage peace. Opting to reject the traditional individualistic application of the metaphor, he interprets the summons to battle as directed to the Church as a whole--"to the body of Christ acting as a unified divine force" (292). Yoder Neufeld argues that the author continues the overall theme of power and empowerment with allusions to traditional "divine warrior" theology found in Isaiah, Wisdom of Solomon, and 1 Thessalonians. In this tradition only God, the divine warrior, has the power to judge and defeat the "powers that be." The community is to "be still" and "know" that God will intervene. In Ephesians, Paul transforms the traditional image by declaring that the divine warrior has already defeated the powers (through Christ). At the same time he calls the community of believers to become engaged in the struggle by putting on the armor (power) of God. It is a call not to withdraw from social interaction, but rather it encourages the Church to engage any and all powers that "resist the reconciliation of all people and all things to God" (315). The text summons Christians to wage peace in the "here" and "now." The Church joins the battle, and this paradox fits neatly into traditional Anabaptist "already but not yet" theology." The Church is to wage the battle that God has already won!

For most of the book, Yoder Neufeld explains and illustrates his translations and interpretations in clear and accessible ways. However, on occasion he leaves the reader wondering how he arrived at a given conclusion. For example, his discussion of 2:14-15 (111-113) suddenly veers into redaction criticism of an early hymn without fully explaining his methodology and the background and basis of his assumptions. While the study of editorial methods and sources is a valid discipline, the author should not assume that a lay reader (or even trained readers) will grasp the complexities of such methodologies without more explanation.

The message of worship and work in the context of Christ's peace is "good news" for all people. Yoder Neufeld's commentary will find a prominent place on my personal bookshelf, and as a pastor I will recommend that it be placed in our church library.

Willmar T. Harder
Hoffnungsau Mennonite Church, Inman KS